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Balancing National Security and Civil Liberties: A Guide to the Debate

Turning to Edward Snowden, there are those who see him as a hero and martyr for free speech, and those who see him as a homegrown traitor. Writing at Contentions, Max Boot writes: “Far from striking a blow for political liberty and freedom of expression, he is unwittingly helping the most illiberal individuals in the world -- jihadist terrorists -- to more effectively attack us.” In the pages of the Los Angeles Times, Boot defends the NSA programs in their totality, arguing that the programs have safeguards to prevent our government from becoming Big Brother. Both the mining and PRISM were approved by Congress on a bi-partisan basis, have been effective in stopping terrorist attacks, and have not abused anyone’s civil liberties. Moreover, Boot is angry that the press, particularly the British Guardian and the Washington Post, are themselves harming our national security by letting terrorists know about our intelligence-gathering capabilities. What Boot fears is not any violations of our rights, but that curbing the existing programs would only embolden the terrorists and possibly allow them to become successful.

So, is Edward Snowden a whistleblower, or a traitor?

While the Left and Glenn Greenwald even defend Bradley Manning as a hero, most people view him as a traitor, given that he put his data on the internet, and did so while he was a soldier in the U.S. Army. Snowden was a civilian contractor working for Booz Allen when he leaked NSA secrets. Thus, even some who do not defend Manning view Snowden as a hero.

Predictably, Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, also writing in the Guardian, calls Snowden’s material “the most important leak” in our nation’s history, more so than the Pentagon Papers he released during the Vietnam War. Ellsberg says the U.S. is not yet an Orwellian police state -- on this he is more moderate than Rand Paul -- but he writes: “Given the extent of this invasion of people's privacy, we do have the full electronic and legislative infrastructure of such a state.” Ellsberg argues that Snowden did not release any damaging data, and that the NSA program is both “unconstitutional in its breadth and potential abuse.” In his eyes, the U.S. intelligence agencies are worse than the old East German Stasi, an analogy that, if anything, shows how off-base Ellsberg is. In the eyes of the left, both in the old days and at present, the U.S. is the worst police state, more so than the most repressive of the old Stalinist regimes.

So, the NSA program is either dangerous and unconstitutional, or necessary and legal. Once again, leftists like Glenn Greenwald and Daniel Ellsberg join libertarians and conservatives like Rand Paul and a few others in making the same argument.

At Slate, William Saletan takes an in-between position. “Big Brother isn’t watching you,” Saletan writes, “but he does want your records in the database so that if any number you called later surfaces in a plot, he can look back through history, spot the connection, and check you out.” Yet Saletan worries that the checks other people cite, such as the FISA court, do not count for much. After all, he notes, the court always approves a government request, and does not in reality function as any kind of check on governmental power. So he suggests realistic, sensible restrictions that would prevent abuse and yet allow the NSA programs to continue. So, Saletan concludes, “if we can’t trust the government to manage surveillance data through publicly understood procedures that inhibit abuse, we won’t let it have the data to begin with.”

Also at Slate, technology columnist Farhad Manjoo has a witty and biting column about Snowden. Why in all heavens, he asks, did the NSA even trust this guy with access to all its top secrets? For that matter, why did Booz Allen hire him as an employee? After all, we’re talking about a 29-year-old high school drop-out with minimal computer expertise, and even a cursory examination of his record would have revealed him as a contributor to Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. What he is, Manjoo writes, is a hardly accomplished IT person with little real experience. And for this he earned $200,000 a year!

And yet, Manjoo writes, “he was accorded the NSA’s top security clearance, which allowed him to see and to download the agency’s most sensitive documents. But he didn’t just know about the NSA’s surveillance systems -- he says he had the ability to use them.”  The government that hired him gave him total access to the most classified programs and did so without any sound reason. He concludes: “The scandal isn’t just that the government is spying on us. It’s also that it’s giving guys like Snowden keys to the spying program. It suggests the worst combination of overreach and amateurishness, of power leveraged by incompetence.”

Jeffrey Goldberg writes at Bloomberg: “One reason I doubt these latest disclosures will move many people into the libertarian column is that the source, a former NSA contractor named Edward Snowden, has washed up in Hong Kong, where he has been railing against the ‘omniscient’ power of the U.S. government. Most Americans understand intuitively that a person who believes that a city-state under the ultimate authority of the Chinese Communist Party is superior to the U.S. in its protection of freedom isn’t fit to comment intelligently on the state of privacy in the post-Sept. 11 world.”